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Tuesday, 8 March 2005
Page: 105

Senator NETTLE (7:51 PM) —Nearly two years ago the SBS current affairs show Insight reported on the tragic story of a 14-year-old boy who was going blind in an immigration detention centre in Port Hedland. The case of Shahin Agdar was a case of extreme negligence on the part of the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs and the then operators of our immigration detention centres, ACM. Shahin was suffering from an auto-immune condition that attacks the eyes. Although an eye test in November 2001 revealed that Shahin was almost blind, he did not receive an urgent medical assessment. In fact, it was four months until he saw a specialist—a delay that ophthalmologist William Ward said cost him his sight in his right eye.

I am very concerned that a similar case of negligence is happening right now. I am concerned that another detainee in one of Australia’s immigration detention centres is currently going blind because of the department of immigration’s negligence. Masood Niroomand-Hooseni has been held in immigration detention for four years. In January this year Masood began to feel unwell, suffering cramps, dizziness, headaches, a loss of appetite and constant thirst. Masood reports that the medical centre at Villawood detention centre failed to test his blood despite his repeated requests and symptoms that would suggest a blood test was necessary.

In mid-January Masood collapsed during the night and was taken to hospital. The doctor at the hospital found his blood sugar level was very high and, as a result, prescribed medication. Later on Masood received an injection of insulin to reduce his blood sugar levels from dangerous levels. On Saturday, 29 January, Masood was found on the floor of his cell almost unconscious. He could hear but could not see anything. He was dizzy with a terrible headache. At eight o’clock he was taken to Liverpool hospital. The doctor at Liverpool hospital dilated Masood’s pupils and examined his eyes. She said that he had blood at the back of his right eye and needed to see a specialist ‘first thing Monday morning’.

That was over a month ago, but Masood has still not seen a specialist. Masood is very concerned that he will lose his sight entirely. He has a new wife and baby outside the detention centre and wants to be able to see his son grow up. Masood has repeatedly requested that he get an ophthalmologist to assess his eyes. He has even offered to pay for the specialist himself. But detention centre management and the department of immigration have not allowed him to see a specialist. Nor, to this date, has Masood had an appointment with a specialist in the management of his now diagnosed diabetes. During this time Masood has complained that his eyes are watering a lot and are red and that his vision has got worse. I understand that, if he has bleeding in his eye and the blood clots, then that clot will block his vision and it cannot be removed. Masood has had his eyes measured for glasses by an optometrist, who correctly told him, ‘I cannot help you; I can only measure your eyes for glasses. You need a specialist.’

In his 2001 report on immigration detention centres, the Commonwealth Ombudsman said that the department of immigration’s duty of care is not able to be delegated. In other words, despite a private company being contracted to run immigration detention centres, the department and the minister still bear ultimate responsibility for the health and safety of all detainees. There are many questions to be asked and answered about the competence of Global Solutions Limited to run Australia’s immigration detention centres. Last week the BBC exposed racism and brutality in Britain’s immigration detention centres run by the same company.

The department of immigration cannot claim ignorance in the case of Masood. On 4 February, Masood’s solicitor left phone messages for Richard Battersby, the department of immigration’s manager at Villawood detention centre, and sent a fax outlining his concerns. Nor can the minister claim ignorance. Francis Milne, a church worker who regularly visits detainees at Villawood, was so concerned about Masood’s condition that she faxed the minister’s chief of staff on 13 February this year. When I visited Masood at Villawood last week, on 28 February, he had still not had his eyes assessed by a specialist. By phone with him again today, I have confirmed that he has still not had his eyes assessed by a specialist. I sent a letter to the minister after my visit last week requesting urgent action.

Masood’s case is yet another example of systematic failure by the department of immigration to take its duty of care to detainees seriously. I have spoken previously about the numerous studies that have found immigration detention centres to be seriously damaging people’s health. The quality of health care for people in immigration detention centres, from Shahin Agdar to Cornelia Rau and Masood Hooseni, has been repeatedly exposed as negligent and culpable. Why does the department wait until its negligence is exposed in the media? Why does it have to be embarrassed into action? Why is it necessary for my office to badger the minister into getting this man with a potentially serious medical condition a proper medical assessment? How many tragic cases of medical negligence behind the razor wire go unreported?

It is becoming increasingly clear that the treatment of Cornelia Rau was not a one-off mistake but endemic in a system that is failing to respect human dignity and basic human rights. Mr Dick Smith, after his recent visit to Baxter detention centre, said it was ‘one of the most oppressive places I’ve ever been to.’ Retired Air Marshall Ray Funnell, who is a member of the government’s Immigration Detention Advisory Group, said the government had ignored repeated requests to properly research the mental health of detainees.

Immigration detention is supposed to be for administrative not punitive purposes. It is becoming increasingly clear that immigration detention is being used to punish people who have not committed a crime. Last Friday I was present at a dinner where Julian Burnside QC revealed that Andrew Kirk, the minister’s former chief of staff, had admitted to him at the dinner that aspects of immigration detention were indeed being used as punishment. Julian Burnside outlined Mr Kirk’s comments that punishment without the order of a court breaches the constitutional separation of powers and that the use of solitary confinement as punishment is unlawful but that the government would keep doing it until a court told them to stop. I believe that this is a further indication that the department of immigration is a department out of control, risking and damaging people’s health.

Too many questions from too many quarters have been raised about the conditions in immigration detention centres for the government to brush away these concerns. There must be a public judicial inquiry into Australia’s immigration detention centres. If nothing else, the unease on the government backbench should signal to the government that enough is enough. The government should heed the call coming from its own backbench to offer an amnesty to all those currently locked behind the razor wire. But it is not because the continued cruelties of our immigration detention centres are fast becoming a political liability that the minister should be announcing an end to the immigration detention centre regime; this regime should be closed down because it is manifestly illegal, immoral and inhumane. While this government continues to rob the lives of these young families, men, and women, and while they continue to allow neglect, mismanagement and even abuse, they bring shame on themselves and this country—a shame that Australians ill deserve.